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J Med Ethics. 2007 Feb;33(2):71-5.

Medical futility: a conceptual model.

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  • 1Department of Cardiology, Freeman Hospital, Freeman Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE7 7DN, UK.


This paper introduces the medical factual matrix as a new and potentially valuable tool in medical ethical analysis. Using this tool it demonstrates the idea that a defined medical intervention can only be meaningfully declared futile in relation to a defined goal(s) of treatment. It argues that a declaration of futility made solely in relation to a defined medical intervention is inchoate. It recasts the definition of goal futility as an intervention that cannot alter the probability of the existence of the important outcome states that might flow from a defined intervention. The idea of value futility and the extent of physician obligations in futile situations are also addressed. It also examines the source of substantive conflicts which commonly arise within the doctor-patient relationship and the ensuing power relations that operate between doctor and patient when questions of futility arise.

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